Howard Jacobson: Lewis Gill may not have meant his punch to kill, but any swing at a man's face is an act of barbarity

It's the mirror of our feelings, the register of our fears and sorrows

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The place could be any crowded city where the one-sided war between cyclists and pedestrians rages. You – the innocent party – are walking along the pavement minding your own business when you see the enemy coming towards you. Is he riding his bicycle at full pelt, or just doing semi-wheelies while in conversation with a friend? Not sure it matters. He and his bike just shouldn’t be here. You have already nearly been knocked down 15 times this morning by cyclists jumping red lights, weaving through traffic, haring in the wrong direction down one-way streets, showing you the finger, mounting the kerb rather than slowing down or stopping – for cyclists are on the devil’s errand and have no time to stop – and so you are not well disposed to them.

“You shouldn’t be doing that,” you say. Perhaps you say it with more forthrightness than the cyclist – than any cyclist, puffed up with territorial aggression and an inflated sense of rectitude – can tolerate. But you are an Asperger’s sufferer and don’t always get your tone right. Not that that should matter. I am not an Asperger’s sufferer and never get my tone right with cyclists. “Get off the fucking pavement,” I might well have said. Which you could argue is asking for trouble, though it’s no more asking for trouble than cycling on the fucking pavement. You get punched in the face, anyway, whoever you are and whatever you suffer from, not by the cyclist himself but by his friend. Call that loyalty.

The punch fells you; your head hits the pavement and you die. So what do you call that?

The judge called it “wanting to cause some injury”. That’s as opposed to wanting to “cause grievous bodily harm”. Had the assailant intended the latter, Judge Cutler explained, the charge would have been murder. So it was lucky that he hadn’t. Intended grievous bodily harm, that is. “Lucky” is the judge’s word. Lucky he’d only wanted to cause injury. “Some” injury – unspecified. Gentle injury, maybe. Non-injurious injury. As though to emphasise how lucky he is, the sentence handed down to him is four years, before the usual deductions. So let’s call that two. From which the only possible lesson we can draw is that things go worse for you if you tell off a cyclist than if you punch someone in the face and kill him.

Look, as Australians say. Look, I know it’s no picnic being a judge. Adjudicating between someone else’s spur-of-the-moment intentions can’t be easy at the best of times, but when you’ve got to make such fine distinctions – between degrees of intended injury: a little bit of injury, a medium amount of injury, a heap of injury – you need moral, psychological, intuitive and mind-reading skills beyond the common. You need to be Moses, Jesus, Freud, Dostoyevsky, George Eliot and Derren Brown rolled into one, and even they might have trembled before such a task.

So here’s a suggestion. Why don’t we just agree that punching someone in the face, whatever you intend by it and regardless of the fate of the person you’ve punched, is an act of barbarity for which you will be punished in a manner commensurate with the vileness of the offence and our utter abhorrence of it? Let’s say 10 years minimum. I won’t complain if someone else says 20.

I don’t know about you, reader, but I have never been able to punch a person in the face. Maybe it’s cowardice that’s stopped me: a fear of being punched in the face back. But it’s also squeamishness. And what’s squeamishness but the outward form of an imaginative, not to say educated, reluctance? I’m talking about something more specific than wanting to cause pain. As a boy I wrestled in the school playground often enough and wasn’t above administering Chinese burns or baby headlocks. “Submit?” I used to love asking. “Submit yet?” Though the answer was invariably a shake of the head. But a punch in the face is another thing again. Cracking bone against bone, breaking flesh, causing blood to flow, smashing into eyes and mouth – not to feel the horror and the sadness of it in advance, not to anticipate another’s pain and foretell your own revulsion, is itself a mark of inhumanity, and that’s before you go ahead and do it. The face, reader! That subtle and most delicate tracery of expression, the mirror of our feelings, the register of our fears and sorrows, the place from which we look out and make connection, even with our assailant. You don’t touch it, that’s what the law should say. Go near it with your fists and it matters not a jot whether you intend to cause “grievous bodily harm”. It is itself an act of grievous bodily harm – and grievous spiritual harm to boot – regardless of consequences.

Judge Cutler is reputed to be a religious man who openly rejoices in his power to show leniency, as though leniency were a virtue in itself. But leniency is creditable only where it is appropriate. To be Christian is to know what’s sacred. At the heart of Judaeo-Christian ethics is the inviolability of the human person, made in the image of its creator, and we don’t have to believe in that creator to understand the holiness of the concept. Lose that and we lose the wherewithal to feel outraged by brutality. If we live in an age inured to daily acts of ferocity, that is in no so small measure the fault of those who think it’s liberal, religious, humane or somehow cute not to cry out against them.

We make monsters out of our cruelty, but we make them out of our indulgence just as well. These things of darkness, Judge Cutler, we must acknowledge ours.  And that’s not a plea for leniency.

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